Not cowed by threat of Stewart’s suit, planners are right to require full environmental review

In 1975, New York passed the State Environmental Quality Review Act that, in its own words, is to “establish a process to systematically consider environmental factors early in the planning stages of actions that are directly undertaken, funded or approved by local, regional and state agencies.”

Such review is essential to protect both natural resources and human health.

Local planning commissions, like the one in Voorheesville, are charged with deciding if projects under their review will raise only minor environmental concerns — in which case, a negative declaration is made — or major ones, resulting in a positive declaration.

The Voorheesville Planning Commission is currently considering an application from Stewart’s Shops to build a convenience store with gas pumps at the site of the now-closed Smith’s Tavern in the heart of the village. A special-use permit is required for gas pumps to be installed on the commercially-zoned property.

The commission, which meets monthly, held a public hearing in April, which was packed, and deliberated for hours at its meeting in May. At the commission’s meeting last Tuesday, June 13, Chairwoman Georgia Gray announced, “We decided to do a full-blown environmental review.” The commission that day had signed a positive declaration.

We consider this an act of courage, working in the public interest.

It’s courageous because the company under review had written it would “pursue legal action” if the commission issued a positive declaration. The Enterprise obtained a copy of a June 9 letter written to Gray from a lawyer for Stewart’s four days before the meeting, threatening to sue. “We are aware of no other Stewart’s Shop across the State (of which there are over 300) ever being subject to a Positive Declaration,” writes Leah Everhart, a lawyer with Miller, Mannix, Schachner & Hafner.

She claims the in-depth environmental review is an unlawful delaying tactic, stating that the commission treated Stewart’s application as a SEQRA Unlisted Action when it should have been treated as a Type II action, since the proposed store is less than 4,000 square feet, making it exempt from review.

The village’s lawyer, Richard Reilly, responded through The Enterprise, “The footprint of the building is less than 4,000 square feet but, if you factor in the canopy [over the gas pumps], it’s well over. At the end of the day, the applicant submitted it as an unlisted action; it’s how we’ve proceeded for the past nine months.”

The commission did what it does with all applications, working through the state’s environmental assessment form, considering each of 11 possible areas of concern. It decided there could be a moderate to large impact in five areas.

These include: changing the use or intensity of use; impairing the character or quality of the existing community; adversely changing the existing level of traffic; increasing the potential for erosion, flooding, or drainage problems; and creating a hazard to environmental resources or human health.

In its draft documentation, the commission correctly points out that the proposed shop is across the street from an elementary school and backs up to the Vly Creek. It notes that the surrounding land is largely residential and lighting, noise, and increased traffic could be problematic, and also that the restaurant was not active, as Stewart’s would be, when children and parents are walking to school. Further, the store is likely to attract kids, walking or on bikes, to a difficult intersection, one without sidewalks across the street from the proposed shop.

The downstream area could erode, the commission says, as could the base of the proposed retaining wall. The draft also says that 4,000 cubic yards of fill is to be placed in the mapped 100-year floodplain and that storms have generated flow greater than the 100-year flood event.

Further, the commission is concerned with the potential for pollutants — including gasoline drips oil spills, trash, and floating plastic debris — entering the Vly Creek floodplain.

Each of these areas merits further review.

Stewart’s Shops is a business and, as such, is looking for the quickest, least costly way to build another store. As a corporation, Stewart’s is successful with its customer-matched charitable donations to a large array of worthwhile community events and projects, which makes many think fondly of the local shops.

The bottom line for a business, though, is making profits. Everhart complains in her letter that the review so far has “cost Stewart’s $30,000 in Commission Engineering fees.” The commission needs to make no apologies in requiring the corporation to meet both local and state requirements or in completing an in-depth environmental review.

Stewart’s Shops Corp. paid $750,000, according to Albany County records, for the property at 12 Maple Ave. And Chuck Marshall, who works in real-estate development for Stewart’s, said the new Voorheesville location would cost about $1.5 million to build. So the cost of the engineering fees pale in comparison.

The letter’s statement that over 300 locations haven’t required in-depth environmental review should not cow Voorheesville. Rather, it should make the village proud that its commission is demanding what is best for its citizens.

Further, Everhart’s letter makes false allegations, stating that, as the commission was reviewing Stewart’s application, “the Village Board was pursuing revision of its Comprehensive Plan in order to alter the zoning in such a way as to prevent construction of a new Stewart’ now appears clear that the Commission’s true motivation was to delay Stewart’s long enough so that the zoning could be changed.”

We attended every village board meeting last summer and fall — and twice editorialized on the village’s need for a comprehensive plan. Our stories, available at, detail both the public’s concerns and the village board’s response to two contentious issues — a proposed six-month moratorium on new gas-pumps as the village sought additional water sources and a proposal for a planned-unit development  that would have allowed St. Matthew’s Church to build an apartment complex next to the church on Mountainview Street and would have applied as well to the other half-dozen tracts of 7.5 acres of land in the village.

Members of the planning and zoning boards had felt left out of the decision-making. In response to this, the village board, late in September, made the wise choice to appoint a committee to work with a paid consultant to create a comprehensive land-use plan, which is still being developed.

We’ve reported on sessions to develop the master plan and interviewed the consultant at length. At no time did we see any evidence that the committee members were working to exclude Stewart’s nor were they working in collusion with the planning commission.

In fact, on its environmental assessment form for Stewart’s, the planning commission says there would be “no or small impact” on a land-use plan or zoning regulations.

We continue to commend Voorheesville for appointing a comprehensive planning committee that is diverse and working hard to develop a much-needed blueprint for Voorheesville’s future.

We conclude with a simple but powerful thought from Georgia Gray, speaking to us about the threat made by Stewart’s: “They can sue us or decide to work with us,” she said.

We urge the latter.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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